In the Ukrainian community, holidays and celebrations focus on torte desserts rather than cookies and cakes and pies. Go to a big Ukrainian wedding, and you’ll see a dessert table that includes 10 or more different types of tortes. Lesya’s Teta Olya makes a very popular torte called a Napoleon, about which I know very little history (start at Wikipedia for an overview)… but I can tell you that it’s absolutely delicious. And Teta Olya’s Napoleon is the best of the bunch.
Baking in Teta’s basement kitchen is a different experience than baking in my kitchen. We didn’t use measuring cups, measuring spoons, fancy offset spatulas, or (certainly not) a kitchen scale. Instead, you’ll see her using a mug to measure out cups of milk, a serving spoon to measure sour cream and sugar, and a butter knife for spreading filling. (She does use a pastry tool for cutting the butter into the flour.) But at 84, she’s been baking that way longer than I’ve even been alive, so I certainly can’t complain about her methods.
This is a two-day recipe: make the dough (~30 minutes) the day before you intend to bake and assemble the torte (3-5 hours).
Some random notes from my conversations with Teta:
- she has never used salt in the pastry dough (something I would consider, as in pie dough)
- she has tried baking more than one dough round simultaneously, but never liked the result
When I “made” a Napoleon with Teta, she did 98% of the work. A few weeks later, my Mom came over to my house and we actually made a Napoleon based on my notes and memory. The recipe below is a combination of my notes from making the two Napoleons… but no doubt I will continue to refine my notes every time I make one.
These are the first videos that I’ve ever taken on the phone. Apparently I should have been holding the phone horizontally rather than vertically. Whatever. I ask Teta some questions. She answers some but not all of them.
Video 1: Cutting the butter into the flour (Teta takes this very literally)
Video 2: Mixing the dough
Video 3: Forming the dough
Video 4: Forming the dough balls
Video 5: Rolling the dough rounds
Video 6: Creaming the custard
Video 7: Assembling the Napoleon
Video 8: Finishing up
For the filling:
6 cups milk (2%)
12 T sugar
8 egg yolks
3 packages vanilla sugar (Dr. Oetker brand, 9 g each)
3 T sugar
1 lb butter, softened (Land-o-Lakes)
1 T (heaping) powdered sugar
To prepare the dough rounds, combine the sifted flour and butter in a large ceramic bowl (“makitra”). Cut the butter into the flour using a pastry blender until the butter pieces are no larger than the size of peas (use your hands if necessary). Add in the sour cream and blend to begin to form the dough. If too wet, add a small amount of additional flour. Form the dough into a large mass, then break it into 8 equal pieces, forming each piece into a flattened ball. Place the dough balls back in the bowl, separated with a small amount of flour to prevent sticking, and refrigerate overnight, covered.
(When I made my Napoleon, I had 1270 g of dough total, so I subdivided it into eight balls of about 158 g each.)
The next day, remove the dough rounds from the refrigerator about 1 hour prior to rolling them out, allowing them to warm slightly so that they will roll more easily.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Roll out each dough round until it is very thin and approximately 9″ or 10″ in diameter. (Teta used the bottom of a springform pan as a template. My springform pan is 9″, but that seemed too small. I intend to measure Teta’s pan when I see her this coming holiday season. Rather than use a 9″ pan bottom, we cut a 10″ template out of a cereal box.) As shown in the videos, turn the dough frequently to keep it from sticking. Using the template, cut away any extra dough and use those pieces to patch any problem areas. Set rounds aside until ready to bake. Using a fork or knife, “dock” the dough rounds to prevent them from bubbling up too much while baking.
Bake at 400 degrees F for about 11 minutes (check this timing the next time!). You will mostly want to see some nice golden color, but not too brown. Teta baked the dough rounds using wax paper on the springform pan bottom. I used parchment paper on a rimless baking sheet.
Allow all of the rounds to cool. Teta says you can refrigerate them for an hour to make them a little more pliable before final assembly.
Start the custard filling by combining the milk and (12 T) sugar in a Dutch oven. Carefully bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a light simmer, stirring only occasionally to check the consistency. After about 1 hour, the mixture will start to thicken and will take on a slightly yellowed color. After an additional 15 minutes, the bubbling will look noticeably different from the increasing viscosity. Once you can run a spoon across the Dutch oven and see the bottom of the pot, the cooking is complete.
Note: I made the custard twice. The first time, I probably didn’t boil the milk down enough. The second time, I measured 2 cups of evaporated milk (versus the starting volume of 6 cups). I suspect I could have taken it slightly further.
In the last 15 minutes or so of evaporating the milk, whip the egg yolks and sugar for about 1 minute. When the milk is ready, add the egg mixture directly to the evaporated milk, off heat, with vigorous whisking. (Teta does not temper the eggs. I tried to temper them and I’m not sure if that helped or hurt the texture of the custard.) Allow this mixture to cool fully (another mistake I made… not letting it cool enough).
Once the egg/milk mixture has cooled, beat 1 lb softened butter with 1 heaping tablespoon powdered sugar. Add the egg/milk mixture in about four portions, beating with the stand mixer (see video). When complete, cool in fridge for 5 minutes to thicken, if needed.
I measured 1180 g of custard total.
Take a large, square piece of wax paper and cut it on the diagonal. Place it on top of your decorative cake round (I need to find a supply of these things!)… you will assemble the Napoleon on top of the wax paper to prevent the custard from making a mess of the cake round.
Place a dough round on the bottom, followed by some of the custard. (I attempted to use 1/8th of the custard, by weight, but note that I think each layer should have slighly less than 1/8th so that there is more custard available at the end of assembly for the outside coat.) Spread the custard thin. Continue to build the Napoleon, dough rounds followed by custard layers, until you have used 7 of the dough rounds.
Before putting on the final outer layer of custard, “clean up” the Napoleon with a knife by trimming around all of the sides and making the Napoleon as round as possible. Then put on the final outer layer of custard, on top and around all of the sides.
Leave one of the lighter dough rounds for the outer, decorative crumb layer. Using your hands, crumble up the layer into, well, crumbs. Spread lightly all over the top and sides of the Napoleon. You may need to use a butter knife or offset spatula to help get crumbs onto the sides.
When the Napoleon is essentially complete, carefully slide the wax paper from underneath the Napoleon while counteracting the pull of the wax paper with a knife. See the video for a better explanation of how to do this.
Cool in a refrigerator or freezer before eating or wrapping for longer-term storage. Napoleons will freeze very well for extended periods of time.